Suzanne Schneider, Mandatory Separation: Religion, Education, and Mass Politics in Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Suzanne Schneider (SS): I’ve always been fascinated by the history of what are often assumed to be timeless constellations of religious belief or practice. There is a widespread tendency to project onto religions a stability and historical consistency that they lack, and I think the appropriate scholarly response is work that highlights religion as a site of change and contestation. However, I found that many histories of the Middle East took religion for granted as something that meant the same thing in, for example, the mid-nineteenth century, as it does now. Consequently, in Mandatory Separation I wanted to explore what exactly made something “religious” within Jewish and Islamic circles in late Ottoman and early twentieth century Palestine, and how that designation came to matter in material terms. In good dialectical fashion, I also wanted to attend to how material conditions—say, the need to rationalize Palestinian agriculture—contributed to the re-definition of what types of human behaviors and activities were counted among the religious. I found this all the more necessary in light of the common assumption that Zionist and Palestinian nationalist movements were largely secular in makeup. In fact, my research has shown that educators and leaders within these movements were interested in constructing new forms of political identity that consciously blurred the religious/secular divide.
What drew me to religious education in particular were the parallel lines of thinking about “old-fashioned” forms of religious learning I found within the writings of Jewish and Arab-Muslim reformers active in the Haskalah and Nahda, respectively. Jewish and Muslims educators in Palestine were heirs to these modernist traditions, though they did not accept their positions across the board. Mandate Palestine therefore offered a unique context to put these modernist lines of thinking in conversation with one another, while also including the added dimension of a British colonial administration bearing its own ideas about the proper role of religion in society. I found these cross currents endlessly fascinating.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SS: I would like to think that the questions I raise in this book—informed by a close reading of sources ranging from archival documents to textbooks and short stories—are still quite fundamental: Is religion about faith or practice, individual salvation or communal responsibility? How is the religious sphere demarcated vis-à-vis material or social life? What are the political uses of religion, and what role do schools play therein? How do modern educational methods and pedagogy not just convey, but also actually shape, what we understand religion to be? Given this set of concerns, Mandatory Separation is not an institutional history of a particular type of schooling but rather a conceptually-driven study that tries to attend to the points of continuity and rupture among Palestine’s disparate, and increasingly antagonistic, communities.
This work engages three primary bodies of scholarship, borrowing insights from religious studies, Middle East history, and science and technology studies, in particular the work of Bruno Latour. The latter may seem to be a bit of an outlier, but I was inspired by his idea of the modern constitution (developed in We Have Never Been Modern), and put my own gloss on it in order to conceptualize British colonial claims about the proper relationship between religion, education, and politics. From there, I developed the idea of a politics of denial, i.e. the expression of political power through policies and convention that deny they have anything to do with politics. The politics of denial was not, mind you, simply a feature of an earlier colonial period. On the contrary, I think we find traces of it wherever liberal claims of neutrality, best practices, etc., seem to appear.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SS: Well, given that this is my first book, I might flip this question on its head slightly and comment on how my current work builds on it. Writing Mandatory Separation drove home the fact that there is extraordinary discursive power deployed in labeling something “religious” (e.g. irrational, faith-driven, exclusionary, etc.) versus “secular” (the realm of rational politics, natural laws, tolerance and other civic virtues), and this is an insight that is crucial to my current project on religious violence. In short, the labels we deploy matter very much because they do the essential work of sustaining a sense of distinction between “our” violence and “theirs.” Nowhere is this more evident than in our current gun-crazy America, where figures like Omar Mateen threaten to erode the boundary between psychologically unstable mass shooters and religious fanatics.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SS: Well, speaking aspirationally, I hope that Mandatory Separation will be useful to anyone interested in the intersection of religion and politics in the modern Middle East, be they fellow academics, general readers, or policy makers. We are used to associating religious movements today with the most extreme forms of radicalism, so I think it’s particularly important to note that only a century ago religion was assumed by many to march hand in hand with political and social stability. My hope is that by historicizing religion, we might also recognize that there is nothing fixed about the current alignment of forces. The corollary is that religious traditions might also contribute to creating the conditions for human flourishing in the future.
I also hope that the book will appeal to educators and those interested in education policy more broadly, particularly as greater attention is turned to the role of schools and textbooks in perpetuating conflicts or promoting increasingly narrow versions of “true religion” (seen most recently in Saudi Arabia, but also in Israel/Palestine). Finally, I hope readers with an interest in colonialism—and frankly, politics more broadly—will find the politics of denial a useful concept for understanding certain forms of power, and perhaps will be able to further elaborate on the idea.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SS: I am currently working on a new project about religion and violence. It focuses specifically on the proliferation of militant groups that have, since the 1980’s, appealed to Islamic frameworks to justify their activities. Much has been written since the attacks of September 11, 2001 on either jihad in general or specific networks (e.g. al-Qaeda, ISIS, etc.), but I’m interested in a different set of questions than these works usually attend to. In historical terms, I think we need to ask “why now?” Meaning, what about the last four decades has proved so nourishing to these forms of violence that wasn’t present in, for example, 1850 or 1950? This is also an important corrective to those who argue that such violence is an essential part of Islam, because we can empirically demonstrate just how unique our present era is.
Beyond pushing back against this essentialist narrative—which posits an unbroken chain linking contemporary jihad to the classical period of Islam—the study will examine the question through three overlapping lenses: agency, capital, and spectacle. The analysis is more materialist than Mandatory Separation, but my goal is that it will be a capacious materialism in keeping with the best of the Frankfurt School tradition.
J: To what extent, and in what way, do you think this book speaks to the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine?
SS: From the rise of Hamas to the messianic rhetoric of certain Jewish settlers, I think that many observers have been surprised by the resurgence of religion as a political force in the conflict. The research I did for this book has led to believe that such shock is unjustified, and really only makes sense if you accept the traditional narrative about the conflict as one between two nationalist movements – wherein “nationalist” is defined in extremely narrow terms as essentially secular. Yet, the thing about making instrumental use of religious traditions—which was a feature of both Palestinian nationalist and Zionist schools during the Mandate Period—is that you don’t have control over the way that future generations will relate to them. Zionist educators might speak of relating to the Bible as literature, for example, but by making it the cornerstone of a nationalist Hebrew education, they also created the possibility for drastically different interpretations. Such interpretations (e.g. the divine right to “Greater Israel”) themselves are not new; what’s novel is that they have become tied to the educational bureaucracy of a state, and harnessed for the sake of specific political and military aims.
Excerpt from Chapter 1, “Religious Education in the Modern Age”
Long a site of crossroads and pilgrimage, Palestine in the early twentieth century nurtured educational ideas and practices that often, though not always, originated elsewhere. Whether it was the latest developments in German educational theory, Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s efforts to develop the empirical sciences in India, or the “lessons” derived from Egyptian schooling, educators of all stripes tried to assimilate global insights and developments into their local contexts. Looking more narrowly at Islamic and Jewish education, we must begin by appreciating the extent to which developments in Palestine were linked to debates and processes that began several decades earlier in places like Berlin, Cairo, and Istanbul. After all, education reform was a key tenet not only of colonial regimes but of modernist platforms propagated by Jewish “enlighteners” (maskilim) in the late eighteenth century and, beginning in the early nineteenth century, by Muslim reformers spread from South Asia to North Africa. In general terms, both movements sprang from a sense of the inadequacy of the existing religious and social order to meet the challenges of the modern world – the latter being represented by the cultural, economic, and political might of western Europe.
While bearing their individual nuances, which are too expansive to detail here, it is nonetheless true that these reform projects were characterized by an overarching concern with the narrowness of a traditional curricula centered on the study of religious texts. It was, reformers claimed, the neglect of subjects like philosophy and the natural sciences that had caused communities to sink into a state of subordination--either literally colonized in the case of millions of Muslims or unfit to join the communion of European civilization in the case of those Jews petitioning for membership. In both contexts, reformers were confronted with long traditions of communal education, and their efforts were often directed at the transformation of existing schools—which were increasingly viewed as the source of moral corruption and cultural decay—rather than the ab initio creation of secular public ones. In many instances, the core of this reforming impulse involved diversifying the customary curricula to incorporate the empirical sciences, foreign languages and literatures, and the emerging body of European political and social thought. This chapter surveys these overlapping geographies and modernizing impulses, the legacies of which would inform the work of Jewish and Arab-Muslim educators in Palestine as they looked to construct—though not without key changes in orientation—their respective visions for the role of religious traditions in the age of mass politics.
Even as we are attentive to certain points of continuity, we must also appreciate the novelty inherent in modern religious education under state or quasi-state supervision and, correspondingly, question the sense of timelessness that is often ascribed to religious learning. For instance, in his 1965 book Education in Israel, Joseph Bentwich, a former assistant director of education for the Government of Palestine, offered a conventional view of Jewish education through the ages: the medieval school (ḥeder) gave way to modern ones founded by European maskilim, which in turn yielded to the Zionist school system and that of the State of Israel. Extending the historical arc back in time, Bentwich explained that Jewish education for boys already existed on a widespread, if not universal, level by the fourth century CE. A parallel account of the history of Islamic education written by Abdul Latif Tibawi—who was, incidentally, Bentwich’s colleague in the Department of Education during the Mandate period—appeared in 1972. Though in many ways a thoughtful and nuanced account, the text nonetheless presents a similar evolutionary trajectory that links the medieval madrasa of al-Ghazali’s time to the educational reforms of Muhammad ‘Ali and the eventual founding of national school systems in postcolonial Arab states.
As evidenced in these works, it can be tempting to narrate the history of Jewish and Islamic education from a communal to state concern as an unbroken chain. Yet we would be well served by pausing to question this presumed continuity between classical, medieval, and modern forms of schooling. Certain features, such as the texts studied, seem to support the argument that contemporary Jewish and Islamic schools are the natural progeny of those that preceded them. Yet these narratives seem to take for granted what are, to my mind, radical differences in terms of the purpose, structure, and content of education that render the modern school something very different from the medieval ḥeder or kuttāb. As Jonathan Berkey has argued in his study of the madrasa, education in the premodern world was conceived of as “a pillar of stability rather than as a force for change.” Thus, while institutionalized learning had a long history in both Jewish and Islamic contexts, it is doubtful whether what occurred in these places was “education” in our contemporary sense of the term. In approaching religious education in twentieth-century Palestine, we must therefore first appreciate the extent to which it represented a modern innovation despite obvious points of continuity with premodern practices.
With this in mind, I argue that the growing consensus throughout the nineteenth century of education as a state, rather than merely communal, concern had significant implications in regard to creating institutions for Jewish and Islamic learning in the years that followed. Appreciating the novelty inherent in mass, publicly funded religious instruction requires us to take stock of three important conceptual pivots: first, the shifting relationship between state and subject; second, the hardening boundaries between “religious” and “secular” concerns and the corresponding interests associated with each; and third, the rise of mass politics, which I argue provided opportunities to link religious knowledge to political activism in new ways. I deal with each of them in turn, as they collectively provide the theoretical foundation for my discussion of discrete educational practices in Mandate Palestine.
The idea that the primary purpose of education is moral fashioning, or in a more contemporary idiom, character development, has found widespread acceptance in contexts ranging from classical Athens to medieval Baghdad and contemporary America. That the responsibility for such education was historically conceived of as belonging to the child’s immediate community is also clear enough. In the Jewish context, the catalyst for education can be traced to the biblical commandment for a father to instruct his children in the laws of Israel. The modern Hebrew term for education, ḥinuch, does not appear in the Hebrew Bible; there, words derived from the same root mean ”to dedicate,” “to initiate” or (less frequently, as in Proverbs 22:6), “to train.” By contrast, one “learns” Torah (from lilmod), and even in contemporary usage the act of studying Jewish texts is referred to as “learning.” Given this etymology, I prefer conceptualizing ḥinuch as a form of initiation, suggesting that it was through ḥinuch that the child assumed his full role in the community. If one remembers that learning to publicly read the Torah was a necessary stage of preparation for the bar mitzvah (literally, one who has reached the age of obligation for religious commandments, i.e., adulthood), the notion of ḥinuch as a form of initiation is even more compelling.
The system of learning that Jewish modernists would later denounce—with the ḥeder and talmud torah at its base and yeshiva at its apex—was already well established by the medieval period. The ḥeder (literally “room”) was a private school, run by an individual teacher to whom parents paid a fee. Children traditionally began at age three by studying the Hebrew alphabet and quickly moved onto the Torah, the Mishnah (the basis of the oral law), and the practical halachot (laws) that they would need to function in the community in which they lived. The talmud torah was identical to the ḥeder in terms of subject matter but was maintained by the community at large to serve children whose parents could not afford the fees associated with the latter. Only the most gifted students continued their studies beyond the elementary stage in the yeshiva, where learning and debating the legal disputations contained in the Talmud consumed the bulk of their energy.
Within the Islamic textual tradition, one can point to numerous hadiths that implore the believer to educate himself or herself. Famously included among the sayings of Muhammad are, “The quest for learning is a duty incumbent upon every Muslim, male and female,” “Wisdom is the goal of the believer and he must seek it irrespective of its source,” and “Seek knowledge even if it be in China” (a weak hadith, though this has rarely stopped reformers from quoting it). The maktab or kuttāb were communal schools in which the child learned to read, recite, and write using the Qur’an as textbook – the terms maktab and kuttāb being related to the Arabic verb “to write” or “to inscribe.” Pointing to the distinction between these institutions and the modern school in his study of colonial Egypt, Timothy Mitchell has argued, “Education, as an isolated process in which children acquire a set of instructions and self-discipline, was born in Egypt in the nineteenth century. Before that, there was no distinct location or institution where such a process was carried on, no body of adults for whom it was a profession, and no word for it in the language.” Mitchell highlights that education in this modern sense (tarbiyya) must be differentiated from learning that “occurred within the practice of the particular profession,” which was more akin to a system of apprenticeship.
Until the early modern period, institutionalized learning in most Jewish and Islamic communities focused on acquiring literacy through the study of canonical texts, coupled with a practical understanding of the behavioral codes that ordered communal life. In its idealized form, education of this type was an inquiry into the sublime, and practically, it served as a process of socialization into the community in which the child lived. For example, no business partnership or marriage would be arranged without the parties reciting al-fātiḥah, the opening sura of the Qur’an. Similarly, it is hard to classify familiarity with the laws of kashrut, or Sabbath observance, as merely intellectual exercises—or worse yet, “religious” duties—within the corporate structure of the medieval Jewish community. The fact that the ḥeder and kuttāb were useful to the communities they served was often overlooked in the modern period as Jewish and Muslim reformers came to echo the colonial distain for “literary” knowledge and to advocate an expansion of traditional curricula to include “practical” subjects. Yet it is likely that the narrow curriculum in these schools had less to do with an innate opposition to utility than with a unique understanding of what education as a practice actually entailed.
[Excerpted from Mandatory Separation: Religion, Education, and Mass Politics in Palestine, by Suzanne Schneider, (c) 2018 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University (Published by Stanford University Press)].